John Frusciante recorded his first two solo records on them. Bruce Springsteen recorded his entire album ‘Nebraska’ (1982) on them with two SM57s. In the 80s artists chose the Tascam Portastudio, as it was the first 4-track recorder that could record at home affordably.
“Shower Studio” – an advertisement by Yamaha from 1989
Cassettes work with tape, something that was already being used in the 1920s. Recording audio to magnetised tape used to be a bit of a crackling experience, until the Nazis improved it before and during the second World War (yeah, really). In 1962 Philips developed the Compact Cassette, originally only for dictation, but later with ‘improved fidelity’ and thereby also used for recording and playing music. In the 21st century recording digitally at home became a possibility, and the Compact Cassette was replaced.
But in recent years cassettes have made a comeback. Low duplication costs (important for beginning bands), labels that only release cassettes, the nostalgic image, and the recording workflow that accompanies cassettes have made artists start to use their cassette recorders again.
With my own productions I sometimes like to work with cassettes when looking for a lo-fi sound. Experimenting when looking for your sound is key. It’s still pretty old technology, so there are a few things to consider. Things that can influence the quality of your sound are things like:
- Quality of the cassettes. Cassettes can degrade over time and even shed their magneticy skin.
- Hi-speed or lo-speed recording. Cassttes are usually recorded at 1 7/8 ips (inches per second), in some recorders this can be doubled to improve recording quality.
- The level or volume with which you record. Recording to the point of clipping can introduce saturation and compression. Which is cool sometimes, and sometimes not.
- The type of cassette you’re using. There are quite a few different types of cassettes, that all sound different.
If you really want to get into it, the rabbit hole is quite deep. There are people who buy NOS (New Old Stock, meaning: made tens of years ago and never opened) and record exclusively on them.
To illustrate how cassette can sound, I’ve recorded some audio onto cassette using my trusty Tascam Portastudio 424, and recorded it back into the computer. The effect is exaggerated a bit to make it clear.
The cassette recording is changed quite a bit. It’s not an ‘expensive’ sound. But it definitely is a characteristic effect. If you’re looking for a more ‘refined’, or ‘expensive’ sound on a low budget, a second hand reel-to-reel recorder might be a good bet. It will have less noise and record with a higher fidelity due to the wider tape.
A possibly even more important aspect of recording with cassette, and also one of the reasons that artists have started working with cassettes again, is the workflow that comes with recording onto cassette. During songwriting and in the studio today there is sometimes an atmosphere of unlimited takes, and undo buttons.
With cassette it’s very simple. Record onto something else, and your previous take is gone. Forever. Timing not right on that third sentence in the chorus? Punch it in, hoping your timing is right. Hard to imagine if you’ve only ever recorded digitally, but also one of the great advantages of the tapedeck. It forces you to think hard about what you’re gonna record, before you’ve recorded it. And of course there is no computer screen to guide you in your project.
There are also a lot of ways to use cassettes as an instrument. Alessandro Cortini (Nine Inch Nails) explains from 3:44 onwards how he uses the Tascam Portastudio in his live setup. Each track contains 1 chord from a chord progression, and when the band is playing he uses the faders to switch between chords.
How do you make this yourself, and how does that sound? Exploring Audio explains:
In the next video from the great guys of Preservation Sound, John Panos explains what the cassette does in his recording process, and you can see him working with it to make sounds. You can listen to his music on Soundcloud. On their blog, you can look at a project they did with cassettes themselves, with some interesting music and info.
If you want to get old school and do some sampling, make a cassette loop by splicing a short piece of tape and taping it back together:
And if you really want to get creative, use your cassettedeck as a tape delay: